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THE WHITE ISLAND ERUPTION

The Maori name for White Island is Whakaari. According to legend, the island was formed when the great Tohunga, Ngatoro-i-rangi was attempting to climb Mount Tongariro.

The legend says that a blizzard came down and the Tohungs was in danger of freezing to death. He called to his sister in Hawaiiki and she sent the fire demons Te Pupu and Te Hoata to rescue him.

On their journey from Hawaiiki they first surfaced at White Island, causing it to erupt, before carrying on to form the thermal region at Rotorua and the craters of Ruapehu, Ngaurahoe and Tongariro. Indeed, all of these regions are on the same volcanic fault line.

Captain Cook sighted the Island on November 1, 1769. He named it White Island, because "as such it always appeared to us". However, as one draws closer to the island, one can see it has a much more yellow appearance, the result of large deposits of sulphur which cover much of its surface.

A former owner of White Island once described it as "the most desolate, God-forsaken and, at the same time, the most awe-inspiring place on the face of the earth."

White Island is the cone of an active volcano, most of which is hidden beneath the sea. The island is between two, and two and a half kilometres in diameter and is located approximately 70 kilometres north-east of Whakatane.

The cliffs of the volcano are between 30 and 300 metres in height, and most of the island's centre consists of a large crater with steaming fumeroles and boiling mud pools.

With the sulphur on the island giving off toxic fumes, very little wild life lives there. However, a large colony of up to 5,000 pairs of gannets may be seen on the island during the breeding season and it is also the roosting place of a number of other sea birds, and home to the rare native rat or 'Kiore'.

Only fourteen different species of plants grow on White Island, of which pohutukawa trees are by far the most numerous. There is no drinkable fresh water on White Island.

Generally, White Island is a barren and inhospitable place. The ground shakes and rumbles frequently, and a strong smell of sulphur fills the air.

Occasionally the fumeroles erupt, jetting super-heated steam skywards and blasting out rocks and boiling mud. One visitor described it as being like "40,000 boilers blowing steam through the dome of St Paul's Cathedral."

Yet, despite its fearsome appearance, men have lived on White Island from time to time , in order to mine the large deposits of sulphur that cover much of its surface. As early as 1843, sulphur was mined on the island, and between 1885 and 1900, more than 5,000 tonnes of sulphur was shipped to the mainland.

In 1913 a new plant was opened up on White Island. Situated on a flat area near Troup Head, it consisted of a boiler house, retort house, laboratory, storehouse, manager's home and office, dining room, and two bunkhouses. There was also a railway track and trucks, winches, boilers and other machinery.

A reservoir to store fresh rainwater had been constructed and three surfboats were kept on a concrete skidway near the wharf.

On September 7, 1914 ten men were landed on the island to spend several weeks mining the sulphur deposits. Albert Mokomoko brought them to the island on the pilot launch from potiki, and he promised to return a week later to bring mail and fresh supplies. The working party consisted of the manager, A.J. McKain and Messrs, S.H. Young, J. Byrne, W.J. Donovan, R. Lamb, H. Williams, A. Anderson, R. Waring, L. Kelly, and R. Walker.

On September 10, 1914 clouds of black smoke were seen rising above the island and a strong smell of sulphur drifted across to the mainland. Slight earthquakes were felt and a stream near Te Teko suddenly began to boil.

On September 15, Albert Mokomoko sailed out to the island, but there were no answers to his signals and he was unable to land in the rough conditions.

On September 19, he returned and rowed ashore in a dinghy. On landing he immediately realised that a disaster had struck.

A large section of the cliff had fallen away, burying most of the wharf and landing area. There was no sign of life.

Albert Mokomoko rushed back to the mainland to get help.

At first it was hoped that the men may have put to sea in the boats to escape a volcanic eruption. This had happened to the men working on the island during the 1880's.

But ships searching the Bay of Plenty and search parties around the coast of the mainland found no sign of survivors. When a rescue party landed on the island, they were able to guess how the tragedy may have occurred.

A huge section of the volcanic cone had collapsed into the crater, where it had been converted into boiling mud. The steam vents had been blocked and eventually they had burst free adding to the mud-flow.

Thousands of tonnes of boiling mud and debris had then flowed towards the sea carrying all before it. The camp, its buildings and plant valued at $50,000 was completely destroyed.

The miners themselves had either been buried under several metres of mud and rocks, or swept over Troups Head into the sea, fifty metres below.

The only survivor was the camp's cat which appeared three weeks later, hungry but uninjured. The strength of the upheaval and the huge mudflow or 'lahar' could be seen from the way heavy machinery had been shoved about and strong piles snapped off at their bases.

In some ways, the White Island disaster resembled the disaster which occurred at Tangiwai when a wall of the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu broke away. In that disaster a huge 'lahar' had swept down the mountainside destroying the bridge at Tangiwai and causing the rail accident that killed 151 people on Christmas Eve 1953.

In other ways, it was more like the Tarawera eruption of 1886 in which Lake Rotomahana was converted into boiling mud pools and steaming fumeroles, and 153 people lost their lives when their villages were buried beneath thousands of tonnes of mud and ash.

Two weeks after the White Island eruption, wharf piles, railway sleeps, timber from the houses and the wreckage of the three boats were washed up on the shores of the mainland.

It is believed that the upheaval had occurred during the night, catching the ten miners asleep and leaving them no chance to escape before they were overwhelmed. No trace of their bodies was ever found.

A party of scientists visited the island some time after the disaster. They came to the conclusion that the cliffs, weakened by chemical corrosion and honeycombed with steam vents, had finally collapsed, possibly due to a small earthquake. This caused a gigantic landslip to pile up on the crater floor, displacing the water of the crater lake.

With the thermal vents blocked for a period of time, pressure built up. Eventually there was an eruption, converting the vast masses of landslide soil into a gigantic boiling mud-flow that swept towards the sea, carrying huge rocks along with it.

The shaking of the eruption caused further landslips and huge piles of debris were left on the floor of the crater, while other areas were covered by a thick coating of mud.

It was estimated that more than two million tonnes of debris fell from the crater walls during the upheaval. If the area had been densely populated, the effects of the eruption and the vast mudflow would have been devastating.

Following the tragedy, the sulphur works was opened again in 1927 with new plant and equipment. On at least one occasion the workers were forced to take to their boats when the volcano began to erupt. The works were finally abandoned in 1934.

White Island still erupts from time to time. In 1954 it sent steam and smoke soaring 4000 metres up into the atmosphere. In 1957 a nearby fishing boat was covered in ash during an eruption.

The island has few visitors due to the danger of an eruption and the difficulties of getting ashore. Should a storm arise, visitors may be stranded on the island for several days.

Today, White Island is deserted, with only the corroded remains of the abandoned sulphur works standing as a grim memorial to the ten men who lost their lives during the eruption of 1914.

author: Kevin Boon.

Ballantyne's Fire | Cyclone Giselle | Tangiwai Rail | Napier Earthquake | Wahine | Wellington Flood | Tarawera Eruption | Murchinson Earthquake | Influenza Epidemic |